A River Runs Through It: 3 Challenges to Our Understanding of Change

There is much to be learned from rivers. If ever there was a group of systems that showcased the inevitable reality of change, it is the river basins of the world. One of the most famous river quotes is Heraclitus’s: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” As water carves its way across the landscape with greater or lesser force, change follows at all scales.


A River Runs Through It: 3 Challenges to Our Understanding of Change…

The message, relevant to absolutely everyone, that rivers proclaim day and night to those who are listening is this: There is no such thing as a static system. Every single system that involves any kind of life or movement is always, always on a trajectory. Change is constantly afoot. To deny this is folly. The only question that needs to be asked is where the trajectory that a system is on is leading to…

It is interesting to consider that one could legitimately frame the ultimate role of rivers as being ‘to drain excess water from the land and deliver it to the sea’. But of course, there is so much more to them than that… 

Many of the world’s largest and oldest cities are built on the banks of rivers – the arteries which provided these settlements with water for drinking and cultivation and offered a means of transport for necessary goods and services into and out of the city.

As people began to make use of river services, they realized that there was a need to manage the changeability of rivers to suit human objectives (which were different to the simple purpose of draining the land surface of excess water). Rivers needed to be made more regular and reliable. Change needed to be absorbed and avoided in favour of predictability which brought a sense of safety and security. 

Flood levees were built to protect too-close settlements from the destructive, raging torrents of flood season, transfer schemes were engineered to distribute water where it was needed but not naturally present, and dams were built to ensure a steady supply of water year-round – especially in arid areas. It was genius. As many risks as possible were mitigated, and the natural fluctuations of flow boom and bust…of change… were all but eliminated in many river catchments across the world. All seemed well, but it was not.

This is not a geography blog but suffice to say that as time went by and understanding grew, scientists realized that there was trouble in paradise. Flood waters that were contained by levees no longer delivered fertile fine sediments to floodplains, which made cultivation far more difficult. Water that was released from dams in predictable, regular quantities left its sediment behind the dam walls and gouged its way downstream in a sediment-hungry and erosive way. Instream microhabitats downstream of dams became more homogenous, and biodiversity began to decline as intricate, seasonal habitat niches were eliminated. 

It seemed that all the change that everyone had been working so hard to eliminate should perhaps have been embraced, that a more nuanced understanding of disruption and change needed to be pursued, and that river change managers needed to open themselves once again to a necessary degree of risk and unpredictability if life in all its nuanced diversity was to be supported.

So it was that the understanding of river change and variability began to shift. And the conclusions that were reached were not vastly different to some of those that have begun to emerge in the change-rocked business biomes of 2020/21.

Here are three of them for you to consider:


1. Rivers don’t only drain excess water from the land surface, and your business doesn’t only produce goods or provide services for your customers. Your handling of change affects more than you may realize.

It can be motivating to reframe your business as a resource and become more nuanced in your view of it. Perhaps you produce a particular range of products or provide a range of services. But as the river of your business flows to the sea, what else is it accomplishing, or what else could it accomplish on the way? 

In short, what is cultivated on the floodplains of your river? Could it be that the occasional overflow (i.e., change), if not avoided or mitigated, could increase the fertility of your adjacent land, and bring forth more life? Have you, either purposefully or accidentally, built a dam wall somewhere which mitigates (most) catastrophe but also inhibits the variability essential for a healthy, sustainable system? It sounds a bit philosophical, maybe, but you and your fellow leaders could have some stimulating times around these questions as you wrestle through the relationship of your business with change.


2. Change Can Bring Many Benefits

Flooding leads to fertile floodplains, and shifting channels lead to the creation of brand new habitats. Change can lead to many great things in river systems, and the same is true in business. Instead of just managing it with gritted teeth, Karen McCullough encourages leaders to consider five benefits that change can bring to a business. These are:

  • Change encourages innovation and creativity,
  • Change promotes skills growth,
  • Change leads to the personal development of people, which in turn leads to the development of the business as a whole,
  • Change can lead to new business opportunities (new crops on the floodplain), and
  • Change, if well-led, can increase staff morale as employees see their business as being resilient.

More effort needs to be spent on understanding the benefits of change than on the building of immovable structures as bulwarks against it.


3. Diversity is a Measure of System Health

A dammed river channel leads to a too-homogenous channel downstream of the dam wall. This, in turn, leads to limited habitat types and limited biodiversity which raises a red flag regarding overall river system health. Aside from just being “the right thing to do”, changing your business system to include diverse people, approaches, strategies, and technologies stands to benefit the system as a whole in amazing ways. TalentLyft identifies 10 compelling benefits of diversity in business which are shown in the diagram below:

As change leaders, let us embrace the benefits of change, see the nuanced novelty that this change can bring, and diversify in a proactive bid to welcome change into our systems. Let us flow with change rather than inhibiting it, and be reassured that change is a sign of life.


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